Biarritz was the cradle of the European surf scene in the 1950s and it’s still the perfect place to seek the ultimate wave today. In May, the best longboarders in the world will be going for gold here at the World Championship.
The waves are moody lovers – now meek, now wild, the next moment unpredictable. Today, they clearly have no clue what they want, failing to reach their usual height and then breaking in every possible direction. Standing by the water on the Côte des Basques in Biarritz, Christophe Moraiz shakes his head. “The wind’s blowing onshore, so it’s pressing the waves down – not good conditions.” Although the sun’s shining and some 30 surfers in neoprene suits are bobbing like seals belly-down in the water, hoping for a good ride despite the conditions, Moraiz, 46, won’t be getting his board wet today. He can wait for the perfect wave – and it doesn’t have to be the Belharra, that legendary 18-meter monster that occasionally in wintertime climbs high into the sky off the coast near Urrugne south of Biarritz and has adrenaline junkies across the world dreaming of conquering it some day. Moraiz himself has been surfing since he was four years old and can be found in the water all year round, whether it’s a chilly 12 degrees or a balmy 24. He has also turned his hobby into a career. In 1999, after the death of his father, he took over the oldest surf school in France. At the end of May, the longboard world championship will be taking place in front of his beach stand.
With its rugged rocks, broad sandy beaches, and the constant, mighty groundswell of the Atlantic, Biarritz has been the California of the European surf scene for over 60 years. In the town of 25 000 in the far corner of southwestern France, surfers carrying boards are as natural a sight as magnificent villas, each one more opulent than the next. After Emperor Napoléon III built a palace with a sea view there for his wife, Eugénie, the fishing village gradually became a popular summer retreat for the European nobility in the mid-19th century. In 1880, the palace was converted into the luxury Hôtel du Palais, which is currently swathed in plastic tarps like a Christo artwork – although the only work going on here is in preparation for the August G7 conference. For the surfers, the event will mean having to plunge into the Atlantic in nearby Anglet, a few kilometers further north.
“Thirty years ago, I was pretty much alone in the water here,” says Moraiz. “Surfing was a niche sport at the time, and that only changed in the 1990s, when rigid foam made boards lighter and neoprene suits became affordable.” These days, he often has to share the Côte des Basques with as many as 300 other surfers in the high season, not forgetting the bathers. Today, the town has almost 20 surf schools competing for the roughly 20 000 students who come each year. The gently sloping beach gives beginners, in particular, a sense of elation as they glide toward the beach on their board for the first time. “You don’t even have to swim out that far to do it,” says Moraiz, “your first ride can work out well even in water that’s just belly deep.” And if it doesn’t, he and his people lend a helping hand because early success is good for motivation.
Nothing has changed on that score since Christophe’s father, Jo, started the surf cult here. That was back in 1957, when Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises was being filmed on location in Biarritz. Peter Viertel, the scriptwriter, discovered that the waves were perfect for surfing and had his boards – still the wooden variety – flown in from the U.S. west coast. When the shoot was over, he gave them to Jo Moraiz, who simply couldn’t stay off them after that and joined up with a handful of other pioneers to become the tontons surfeurs, “surf uncles,” who went down in the history of Biarritz as local heroes.
Any self-respecting, 21st-century surfer has his own board custom made, or “shaped” as the experts say, at a place like Stark Surfboards in Anglet. Its owner, Vincent Maréchal, 37, is just putting the finishing touches to a board with a polyurethane foam core. Another board that he’s already decorated with a Basque flag for a customer is waiting under a glass-fiber tarpaulin for Maréchal to apply a coat of resin. “A custom-made board is like a bespoke suit,” he says, “it’s simply easier to surf with one that’s tailored to the weight, height and ability of the individual surfer. And plus, starting at 600 euros, these boards are barely more expensive than an off-the-shelf board.”
Maréchal, who hails from Brittany, had nothing but surfing on his mind as a kid, he says, but he followed his parents’ advice and first learned “something sensible” – mechanical engineering – before teaching himself how to shape boards. Finally, he moved south along the coast and ended up with Jean-Pierre Stark, the shapers’ guru himself, who taught him the final tricks of the trade. Stark had learned to surf in the 1950s, on Tahiti, where he made his first boards. In the 1980s, he custom-made high-performance boards for champions, including Tom Curren from California, Tom Carroll from Australia, and the French surf star Didier Piter. When Stark retired in 2016, Maréchal took on the business.
Another pioneer of the surf scene is Lena Stübner, 44, from Sweden, who brought the idea of a surf camp to the French Basque country, or more accurately, to Hossegor, some 40 kilometers north of Biarritz, where the steep coastline melts into an endless dune landscape. That’s where she runs her Koala Surf House, a small beach house with red shutters and a bright Nordic interior – all white and wood. During the season, from April through October, she shares her kitchen, living room and her surf- and skateboards with up to 12 guests, who sleep in two dormitories. When she opened the camp close to the area’s three best surf spots in 2004, it was the first of its kind – today, there are dozens of them.
Stübner was a well-known TV host in her native Sweden when she first arrived in Hossegor with her boyfriend 20 years ago. Before they came, she had to promise him she wouldn’t grumble if he spent all day in the water. But then Lena climbed on a board herself. “All it took was my first adrenaline rush with a huge wall of water at my back, my first successful ride – and I was hooked!” At age 29, she abandoned her TV career and has been living by the same motto ever since: Live simply and surf as much as you can. “I was terrible to begin with,” she recalls. “But because I went into the water in all weathers, everyone began to respect me and didn’t complain when novice Lena rode right across their path yet again. Surfers can be pretty macho; the surf scene is still a man’s world, although today, half of my regular guests are women.”
But the pecking order ahead of a good wave is merciless, be you surfer girl or surfer boy. “I’ve seen real fights on the beach in Anglet,” says former pro Xavier Leroy, 38. “Surfers are loners, and when too many come together, some lose their cool.” Leroy was a member of the French national surf team and for ten years earned his living endorsing various surf brands. Today he works as a private coach, teaching beginners and experienced surfers on Les Sables d’Or, the beach north of the lighthouse in Biarritz. To make sure his students don’t have to share the waves with anyone else, they ride electric fat bikes to remote surf spots further north.
Xavier Leroy is one of the first hydrofoil surfers in the region. Hydrofoil surfing, or windfoiling, is a kind of hoversurfing invented by Laird Hamilton, the big-wave surfer from Hawaii who’s a legend in his own lifetime. “It’s more a feeling of flying than gliding, and it works even in small waves,” Leroy raves. A long fin, known as the “mast”, makes this possible. Below the water’s surface, the mast is connected to a crossbar with two so-called “wings”. Like the wings of an airplane, they give the board lift, and when the board picks up speed, the mast lifts it out of the waves. Although this type of surfing is still new, some brands are already producing foilboards. Leroy warns novice surfers not to go near them, though, as they are difficult to handle and the superfin poses a real risk of injury. That’s also why the Mayor of Anglet imposed a precautionary ban on foils on his beaches last summer. Still, Leroy firmly believes hydrofoil surfing is here to stay, like wave riding in the 1960s. Back then, the town of Biarritz would have loved to banish from its beaches forever the long-haired boys with their rock music and longboards – and surfing actually was banned there for a time. But, ultimately, there’s just no stopping the perfect wave.
1 Urrugne/Welle Belharra
2 Beaches: Côte Des Basques/ Plage Du Port Vieux
3 City Center Biarritz
4 Beach Les Sables D’or
5 Koala Surf House, Hossegor
6 Shape House
Dream about the perfect wave on a former city palace that offers every modern comfort – and an ocean view.
Perched high above Côte des Basques beach, the Extola Bibi bar serves beer and panini till sunrise.
Even non swimmers can ride the waves in the 5D-surf simulator at the interactive City of the Ocean museum.
GENRAL SURF STORE
Build your own board, get your beard trimmed, tuck into a croissant: All available at The Shaper House.